When the NCAA Tournament comes around for NBA fans, most of the talk centers around the star prospects. While those players are important and debating their future success makes for heated barstool debates, the real fun lies elsewhere. Nothing is more rewarding than finding a diamond in the rough, that college player no one else gets excited about but you know is going to be a pro one day. In an effort to make you seem smarter during your tournament scouting, here’s a list of five players that currently miles from draft boards that may one day crack an NBA roster to surprise of all your basketball buddies.
1. Przemek Karnowski, Gonzaga
Plays like: Kosta Koufos
It’s hard to imagine being off the draft radar when playing for one of the best teams in the country, but Karnowski has managed to pull it off. Watching him play, the knocks against him are fairly obvious. He’s old for a senior (23), can’t jump and has a 7-foot-1, 300 pound frame built for an NBA era trending smaller and faster. Oh, and his primary method of scoring is through the post, another dying aspect of today’s professional game.
Yet if you watch his game closely this tournament, you’ll see that a few stereotypes typically attributed to Karnowski’s general size and skill set don’t really match up. First off, while Karnowski won’t be winning any slam dunk contests in the future, he’s not some immovable stiff either. He moves his feet fairly well on defense (or at least well enough that he won’t get toasted by every single NBA guard in pick-and-roll defense) and nimbly transitions from screening to rolling to the basket in pick-and-rolls on offense. If you can move well enough in other ways, being floor bound isn’t a death sentence for your professional hopes -- just ask Nikola Pekovic, a player who made a nice living off NBA paychecks before injuries derailed his career.
And part of Karnowski’s reliance on his post game is because that’s what Gonzaga asked him to do. If you squint hard enough, there’s the makings of a player who can survive, at the very least, as a “short roll guy” (a player who hangs out near the free throw line instead of diving all the way to the basket) in the NBA. Not only that, Karnowski plays very unselfishly, passing out of post ups and consistently taking reversals on the perimeter and chasing them into pick-and-rolls with a teammate -- the latter of which is a key indicator of a player’s ability to accept being a “role” guy in the NBA. If Karnowski played with one of the country’s better passing guards (think Maurice Watson from Creighton, Matt Farrell from Notre Dame, etc) we’d probably have a better idea of just how good of a pick-and-roll big Karnowski can be.
There are some real concerns, obviously, when it comes to Karnowski actually cracking an NBA roster. For starters, he’s a good rebounder, but not a great one. According to the college stats site Kenpom.com, Karnowski ranks only 260th in defensive rebound percentage and isn’t even in the top 350 when it comes to offensive rebounding. If you look back at the same data, you’ll find that most bigs who surprised people by latching onto to NBA rosters -- even someone like former Atlanta Hawk, Mike Scott -- were typically pretty dominant when it came to cleaning the glass. Karnowski also needs to become automatic on those 15-18-foot jumpers to give him one surefire way to score out of pick-and-roll. On top of that, Karnowski can’t lose the battle with his weight and conditioning.
But during this tournament, keep an eye on the things Karnowski does that you successful 10-15 minute guys do in the NBA. You may be surprised at what you see.
2. Derrick Walton Jr., Michigan
Plays like: Patty Mills
Over the second half of the conference season, Walton has seen his stock rise from a player destined for a life of low-level overseas basketball to one with a possible path to the NBA. While there are questions about his game that need to be answered, there’s no denying his outstanding production over the past two months. Walton has scored 18 or more points in 11 of Michigan’s last 19 games, going back to to their January 14th win over the Nebraska. Entering the tournament, Walton’s 3-point percentage is sitting at an impressive 41.2 percent on exactly 6.0 attempts per game. So why is Walton not blowing up draft boards?
For starters, the physical tools just aren’t there. Walton is listed at 6-foot-1, which may be a little generous. If you look across the NBA, most players that size have some elite physical tool helping them out. Isaiah Thomas is built like a bowling ball. Ish Smith is blazing fast. Whether it’s speed/quickness or strength/stature, there’s something helping these players get past their size limitations. Walton doesn’t possess any of those standout physical traits, which probably makes the above comparison to Mills seem off.
But the reason for it is that, even with his quickness, Mills basically survives in the NBA on a steady diet of jumpers from both 3-point land in the mid-range. Walton isn’t ever going to magically morph into a player elite at both getting into the paint and finishing, but if he continues to improve his shooting off the catch and off the bounce, he doesn’t need to be great at getting to or finishing around the rim.
The real key to Walton’s future success as a pro -- and the top thing to watch for in this tournament -- is his passing. Walton flashes a much better feel (and flair) for making plays than even Mills does now in San Antonio. According to Kenpom data, Walton ranks 161st in the country in assist rate (that number seems high, but remember there’s about three bajillion D1 teams in college basketball). The problem is, Walton’s role for the Wolverines is as a scorer given the lack of heavy lifters around him.
Getting a feel for whether or not Walton can transition to being more a facilitator will ultimately determine whether he has a chance to crack an NBA roster. If you watch Walton and think he can’t make that shift, chances are he’ll wind up overseas. But if you see a burgeoning and capable playmaker to go with an improving shooter, you may be a little bit more bullish on Walton’s NBA hopes.
3. Davon Reed, Miami
Plays like: Tim Hardaway Jr.
In a league desperately searching for 3-and-D guys, it’s a little surprising how little draft love Reed receives. Through his four years as a Hurricane, Reed has flashed an incredible consistency in shooting percentages, this year currently checking in at 39.9 percent on a career high 6.0 attempts per game. On top of that, he’s a member of the ACC’s All-Academic Team the past two seasons.
In watching him play, it’s hard to see glaring flaws with Reed, but if you squint hard enough you can maybe catch a few things that raise questions. For starters, he’s a solid athlete, but not one of the crazy athletic wings that inhabit the NBA. Reed makes up for that slightly with a nearly 6-foot-11 wingspan, but if you’re looking for an Andrew Wiggins-esque athlete, this Hurricane senior will fall short.
When it comes to his game, Reed has definitely passed muster as an outside shooter in terms of production, but he’s not the gravity-shifting sniper that teams will fear leaving opening. There are plenty of good college shooters that struggle to transition those percentage to the longer NBA line. For a player destined to be a role player like Reed, a minor dip in accuracy at the next level could make or break his career. Along with that, Reed has improved his handle enough to take on some pick-and-roll responsibilities, but he’s not a smooth operator to the point where NBA execs will see it as a serviceable skill at the next level.
That said, it’s hard to see why, if Reed is a dedicated worker, wouldn’t wear an NBA jersey some day. He’s got good size and length, the foundation for an accurate outside shot, plays hard and -- if you trust ACC academics -- is a bright kid. Those are typically indicators for a future NBA player, but this tournament is your chance to see if anymore cracks in Reed’s game emerge.
4. Matt Thomas, Iowa State
Plays like: Marco Belinelli
College basketball is filled with 3-point specialists who finish school and go dominate….local pro-am’s and rec leagues. To chalk Thomas up as one of these players would be a mistake. While he looks your run-of-the-mill specialist, Thomas has a few quirks in his game that may give him a chance at the next level.
For starters, Thomas isn’t just inflating the nation’s 59th best True Shooting percentage (per Kenpom) by just standing outside the arc waiting for the team’s star point guard, Monte Morris, to spot him. Iowa State runs a handful of different sets where Thomas bends defenses by running off screens for more difficult catch-and-shoot looks. This is partly where the Belinelli comparison comes in.
The other reason for it is Thomas, who was his team’s star player in high school, has a great feel for the game and enough skill that handling the basketball in the halfcourt as a secondary operator isn’t out of the equation. That type of versatility is something that should help Thomas separate himself from the legions of shooters unable to threaten a defense in other ways. Finally, Thomas isn’t just a traffic cone on defense either. While he’s also not a lockdown defender, Thomas competes and has the smarts and foot speed to likely avoid being the liability that say, Troy Daniels from Memphis is, on that end of the floor.
That said, Thomas’ athleticism will be a serious drawback. He doesn’t have great burst and defenders who chase him off the 3-point line have success in forcing him into much lower percentage shots, like step-back long 2’s. The key thing to lock in on while watching Thomas during this tournament is his ability -- or lack thereof -- in terms of getting to counters when not able to catch and shoot cleanly from deep. Very few players have survived in the NBA as standstill shooters (Steve Novak and Anthony Morrow, two players often cited as the best shooters teammates have ever been around, come to mind). Thomas needs to demonstrate that he can get to something in these situations if he wants to have a real chance at the NBA.
Early Entry Candidates
1. Angel Delgado, Junior, Seton Hall
Plays like: Alan Williams
If you’re looking for the country’s best rebounder, he’s playing for this feisty Pirates team. Delgado ranks 8th in offensive rebound rate and 12th in defensive rebound per Kenpom data and is one of those players who seemingly collects anything that doesn’t go through the hoop when he’s on the floor. No skill translates better to the NBA than rebounding and Delgado would be the latest in a long line of glass cleaning specialists to hang on for multiple seasons in the NBA.
The fun thing about Delgado, however, is that he’s not just a rebounder. While he gets a little cavalier in his attempts, Delgado can whip the ball around to open teammates from the post -- firing lasers to the weakside to find shooters with the savvy of a 10-year pro. Given how much NBA teams are using the post a vehicle for ball movement (think Golden State’s split cuts, etc), Delgado’s passing chops should be a coveted skill. Combine them with a nice touch and the foundation for a decent mid-range jumper and you have a player starting to look like a lock for an NBA roster if he comes out early.
Now, the reason Delgado isn’t currently topping draft boards is there are some obvious drawbacks. He turns the ball over quite a bit for a big man on offense and on defense, well, there’s a little Kenneth Faried to him. Like the Denver rebounding machine, Delgado views some aspects of defense with indifference at times. Whether it’s the scheme, how’s he coached or his own mindset, Delgado doesn’t exactly kill himself to be active as a pick-and-defender -- something that stands in contrast to Williams, one of his better NBA comparisons. Delgado may still stick in the NBA because of his rebounding, but his defense could be an achilles heel to keep an eye on while scouting him this tournament.